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22.03.2018

Social Engineering: Your Soul for Sale? | Connecting with Culture

Once upon a time, back when the internet was still young and at least moderately innocent, social media was about relationship.

It allowed friends to keep up to date with each other, old friends to get back in touch, even families spread across different continents to stay connected.

Ten years later, it’s allegedly the tool by which a group of state-sponsored Russian actors delivered the propaganda that swung the 2016 US Presidential Election. In light of the recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica and data-harvesting, the question is, quite simply, ‘how did we get here?’

Whilst Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, has claimed that there is no relationship between his company and Russia, the links are certainly there and are part of a broader picture of the ‘weaponisation of information’ for which Russia has become famous. A step back, though, shows that Russia is not the only one at it. They just happen to be the best.

Under pressure to monetise its platform after its hugely successful IPO, Facebook’s algorithms were developed to deliver the goal of keeping people on the site for as long as possible. They learned what you like and provided more of the same, aiming to keep you reading your news feed for as long as possible. One upshot of that is the ‘bubble effect’ of being served opinions that so closely match your own – if you are challenged by something you don’t like, you might go elsewhere.

Put another way, Facebook’s raison d’être is not to ensure that you are the most rounded, informed, socially and politically aware person you can be. It is to generate returns for its shareholders. And, as the whistle-blower Christopher Wylie explained, this also provides a framework within which to deliver information – or misinformation – to highly targeted audiences.

Facebook’s challenge is that ‘fake news’ may offer greater revenues than legitimate news. Truth has been subordinated to profit.

For businesses, and for us, money is a remarkable litmus test of where our true loyalties lie – as Jesus warns, ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:21). And when truth is considered an optional extra, injustice inevitably follows.

The personal information we share online is being deployed to shape opinions that impact our identity, to influence our relationships, and to negatively impact our ability to disagree well. As Christians, therefore, we cannot be apathetic about its use – and its exploitation.

Guy Brandon
Guy is research director for the Jubilee Centre and the author of Digitally Remastered: a biblical guide to reclaiming your virtual self, published by Muddy Pearl.

Comments

  1. Thank you for such a thought provoking piece on a very topical issue. There is something within us all that likes to live in a bubble, something that undermines our integrity.

    By Alan J F Fraser - 23rd March 2018
  2. Surely it is our responsibility as individuals to ensure that we are discerning in what we open our minds to? Facebook were just doing what any big business does; working to make more money. I seriously doubt they thought at all about the consequences of that being a narrow spectrum of opinions being shown to people. And there is NO WAY to program any computer to discern what is true and what’s not; that’s a person’s unique ability and their responsibility. You might as well blame the people that make horror movies for the effects they have on those who choose to watch them…

    By CXW - 23rd March 2018
  3. Raisin d’etre ?
    Is this something about being a raisin ?

    Seriously – great article – thank you.

    FPG

    By Ferdy Pearson-Gee - 23rd March 2018
  4. You are right, of course; but there was always more to it than that wasn’t there? There was never any need for a “Facebook” to keep people connected. Most people stay in touch with the 5 or 10 people they are closest too come what may and are happy to deal with the rest from time to time. I don’t actually know anyone who feels more in touch with the casual acquaintances they label as “face-book” friends than they did before. I do know a great many who find the whole thing a great pressure and many whose presence on Facebook has led to bullying and exploitation. Surely the whole concept was designed as a way of avoiding, rather than building up relationships (which can only be done in person). Members were never seen as anything other than a series of data points to be exploited from the start. Recent events have just brought that fact to light.

    By Felicity Hunt - 23rd March 2018
  5. ‘Our ability to disagree well….’
    How crucial that is at this moment: for Christians not simply to bemoan
    the insidious forces which effectively destabilise society, but to offer hopeful
    alternatives. Easier said than done, maybe, but thank you for this call to arms!

    By Sheila Walker - 23rd March 2018
  6. The test is “How open our church community is to disagreement” Would we dump a Prophet from the OT who criticised us in the cess pit? Does fear of this silence us?

    By Alan Joinson - 23rd March 2018
  7. 2000 years ago this was all foreseen.

    2 Tim 4:3 For there is going to come a time when people won’t listen to the truth but will go around looking for teachers who will tell them just what they want to hear.

    for a bit more French try this : plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

    By John from Belfast - 23rd March 2018
  8. Isn’t social media neutral – we make it either positive or negative. On the positive side it keeps me in touch with family and friends and on the negative side it can bring a certain kind of FOMO – (fear of missing out that makes you keep checking) And picking up some of the comments I concur that Facebook friends can be a mile wide and only an inch deep.

    By Gordon Banks - 23rd March 2018
  9. Gordon, social media *should* be neutral but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is. The present controversy with Facebook is not the first
    https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/29/facebook-users-emotions-news-feeds
    and is a reminder that we need to not accept things at face value. We also have a responsibility to ensure that we are aware of what we expose ourselves to; unfortunately this isn’t always easy…

    By Michael Allen - 23rd March 2018
  10. The existence of Facebook, et. al. is simply the latest attempt for many to find significance in an increasingly hostile world; to be reassured that someone out there likes me and deems what I say worthy to be considered. That Facebook information may have influenced Trump’s election says less about Facebook and more about the gullibility of the American voters.

    By Bob johnson - 24th March 2018
  11. just so you are aware of this, Obama and his administration used Facebook as well, before the republicans ever did to gather intel on millions of Americans. This was well known and documented back 2013.

    By gary - 27th March 2018
  12. one sad point is how the word ‘harvest’, traditionally a time of celebration, has gathered some more sinister connotations, highlighted by the this whole business

    By Bruce Gulland - 6th April 2018

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